Self-Interpreting Animals and the Humanity of the Humanities
Last September, the Japanese minister of education wrote to Japan’s national universities instructing them to actively abolish humanities programs or transform them into initiatives that “better meet society’s needs.” This directive is part of a broader, global trend in higher education that has lead to serious funding reductions in humanistic disciplines. In the name of austerity, the UK government followed the recommendation of the 2010 Browne Review by cutting all direct funding of arts and humanities teaching in 2012 . Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council budget suffered a 10.5% reduction between 2007 and 2015. And in the United States, federal funding for the humanities fell from $855 million in 2008 to $594 million in 2014.
Although these cuts are often made in order to promote the so-called “revenue-generating” subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math, scant bureaucratic attention has been paid to the way budget reductions in the humanities impact our distinctly human way of life. And since humans are self-interpreting animals, cuts to the humanities undercut our humanity.
To say that humans are self-interpreting animals means that our identity is not fixed, but open to change and determined by the choices we make over the course of our lives. Our ability to determine our identity distinguishes us from particulate matter, organic materials, and all the other animals that populate the natural world. Whereas the identity of water is timelessly set as H2O, human identity is related to a specific, contingent historical context as well as our manifold abilities. The education we receive, the careers we pursue, or the relationships we cultivate depend upon the time, place, and circumstances of our birth. These circumstances undoubtedly shape who we are, but they are contingent insofar as we are born with the capacity to study a host of subjects, pursue a variety of careers, or cultivate all kinds of relationships. The contingency of our upbringing combined with our ability to lead alternate lives allows us to question the identity we inherit, and casting doubt on the life we lead is part of what it means to be self-interpreting.
Once we have recognized the contingency of our upbringing and questioned our current identity, self-interpretation involves projecting an identity-defining choice into an indeterminate future. We can, for example, take a hard look at our life and then decide to continue studying philosophy, but we can equally break with our past by choosing to become a banker or a lawyer or some other such thing. The fact that we can make this choice indicates the uncertainty of our future and presupposes that a portion of our life still lies ahead of us. And again, it is the contingency of our past, the multiple abilities we possess, and the indeterminacy of our incomplete existence that enables us to generate an interpretation of ourselves through the choices we make over time.
Whilst we have the potential to interpret ourselves in countless ways, the scope of our identity-defining choices is always circumscribed by the situation we currently find ourselves in. We can strive to be an actress or director in 21st century New York, but we can only dream of being an Ancient Greek oracle or hoplite. More importantly, we face serious pressure to conform to all kinds of contemporary social norms, ranging from the clothes we wear and the way we speak, to the relationships we choose and the careers we pursue. In fact, the confines of our current situation along with the pressure to conform to the expectations of our family, friends, and other members of society can overwhelm us to the point at which we fail to choose our identity and simply accept the path in life that our parents, teachers, and leaders have prepared us for. In short, defining ourselves via self-interpretive choices is a challenge, and this is where the humanities come in.
Broadly conceived so as to include all the materials studied in classics, history, religion, philosophy, politics, literature, and the visual and performing arts, the humanities canon contains a litany of existential possibilities and alternative ways of life. Homer and Thucydides have much to teach us about the experience of war. Aristotle, Kant, and Mill offer competing accounts of how we ought to act. Dickens and David Foster Wallace provide us with detailed insights into everyday life in the 19th and 20th centuries. And entertainers from Aristophanes to David Bowie have pushed the boundaries of acceptability in the name of human potentiality. To pick up Plato’s Republic or Austen’s Emma is to enter a world other than our own. And receiving a general education in the humanities helps break the grip of the status quo, and in doing so, facilitates our self-interpretation by showing us that our current social arrangements and general outlook on life could be otherwise.
Of course, engaging with the humanities is not confined to the classroom, art gallery, or concert hall. And we can equally learn about different ways to be through travel, the news, or watching TV. But the institutions of higher education and artistic creation do play a crucial role in the initial presentation of identity-defining possibilities insofar as the publication and dissemination of research, writing, painting, and performance take implicit human potentiality and make it a concrete reality. For example, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations made stoicism a viable way of life for many in the ancient world, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women paved the way for the feminist movement generally. The humanities, in other words, not only introduce us to alternative ways to interpret ourselves; they are also responsible for the initial articulation of a great many existential possibilities.
Given the part humanities play in the presentation and creation of identity-defining possibilities, we should find the cuts to humanities research and teaching that are happening in Japan, the UK, the USA and elsewhere around the world extremely disconcerting! For making identity-defining decisions presupposes our explicit awareness of and immediate access to different ways to be. And insofar as the humanities provide this awareness and access, cuts to the humanities undercut our self-interpretive potential and thereby undermine the ability to choose that makes us human.